Today Ray and I got up early and headed over to St. Thomas Episcopal church to work at the Breakfast Club, our homeless breakfast program. We reinstituted pancakes today after about a 4 year hiatus. We used to have pancakes every breakfast, but a chef came in to guide us in our meal preparation and suggested that we make bread pudding instead. “It’s more efficient,” he said, “and you can add whatever fruit is available depending on the season.”
I have been the primary bread pudding maker since then and each breakfast I would break up bread from two to three loaves of whatever bread we had: French, whole wheat, pastries, even frozen waffles, mix with eggs, milk, cinnamon, maple syrup, sugar and the fruit of the day (banana, apples, peaches or even canned cherry pie filling), and pop in the oven for forty-five minutes to an hour. We’ve routinely made two to three big pans of this depending on the number of breakfast attendees. Most people liked it, some loved it, but almost everyone always said, “When do we get to have pancakes again?” After all, pancakes somehow feel as if they are part of a special breakfast meal.
Needless to say, everyone was excited that today was the day. It took a bit of remembering to get the proportions right between the mix and the water to create the right consistency, but after a little trial and error, we were off and running. I made the first several batches on the griddle, then handed the job off to two volunteers. (After all, the newer volunteers need to feel as if it is worth their efforts to get up early and come out on a Saturday morning.) As a result, I got to go out and be among our patrons, something I don’t always get to do.
One of the regular diners is a blind woman named Maria, who also is half-deaf. She came in today just as the last diners were finishing up. Ray called for me to come over and help her, which I did. Maria, who is 63, told me that she’d had a bad morning. The driver from the social service organization that drives her from place to place due to her blindness had driven away before she could get out to his van this morning. “It was my fault,” Maria said. “I was running late.” She asked me to pack up food for her quickly so that she could get back outside so that she didn’t miss the driver’s return to pick her up. (She’d had to take a cab to come to the breakfast as it turned out.) Quickly, I packed up pancakes, scrambled eggs, corn beef hash and potatoes for her and put the containers in a freezer bag she had brought with her. “No syrup,” she said as I was packing the pancakes. I am deathly allergic to that and I could go into a coma and die,” she said. I asked if she was diabetic. “Yes,” she said. “Black coffee only since the creamer has sugar in it as well.” She apologized several times for asking me to hurry so she didn’t miss her ride back home. All I could think about was how the challenges she faced daily just getting from place to place were so much greater than most of the challenges in my life. “It’s no problem,” I said. “No problem at all.”
The homeless breakfast is a chance for me to gain a big dose of gratitude pretty much any day I go to take part. I am grateful that I get a chance to help feed people who truly are needy for the food. This reminds me that I have more than enough food in my life. I also am always struck with how grateful our patrons are to receive our help. Almost all express their thanks either in words, smiles or occasional hugs. We get our share of “God bless you’s.” It is gratifying. I also get a wonderful chance to put my own troubles in perspective. When talking with someone like Maria, who is navigating through life with such major physical handicaps, I find myself thinking, “And you complain about your problems?”
Putting oneself in another person’s shoes for just a moment does in fact produce almost instant compassion. That is the gift of the Breakfast Club, empathy and tender-heartedness for our fellow human beings.
I suspect that bread pudding will become a distant memory as of now. Efficiency is nice, but who doesn’t love pancakes?